Gabey Goh
Jul 26, 2016

Pokémon Go or no: Should Asia’s brands catch ‘em all?

Industry experts weigh in on the all-the-rage game and mobile AR in general. Read this before you decide what (if anything) your brand should do.

Pokémon Go or no: Should Asia’s brands catch ‘em all?

ASIA-PACIFIC - Pokémon Go is now live in Japan and Hong Kong, the first two markets in Asia. And rollout in additional Asian markets is only a matter of time.

The augmented reality (AR) mobile game’s debut in its “home country” of Japan was also marked by the first brand sponsorship. In addition to Pokémon-branded Happy Meal promotions in the lead-up to the launch, McDonald’s Japan also turned its 3,000 stores in Japan into “gyms” where players can battle.

As a mobile gaming app, Pokémon Go has surpassed expectations. Just two weeks after its US debut, it reportedly passed 30 million downloads and US$35 million in revenue, overtaking Twitter in terms of active users and Facebook in terms of engagement. 

So where do brands fit in with this phenomenon?

Rohit Dadwal, Asia-Pacific managing director of the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA), said there is definitely opportunity for brands in Asia, especially given the region’s robust appetite for gaming.

“Gaming revenue from Asia-Pacific amounts to US$46.6 billion in 2016, which represents nearly half of the total market,” he said. “This has been driven primarily by strong gaming communities in China, Japan and South Korea, but also increasingly Southeast Asia.”

Game developer Niantic has said that “sponsored locations”, where companies would pay to become locations in the virtual world to drive foot traffic, would be introduced.

However it remains to be seen how rapidly official partnerships with brands will be rolled out globally, with Japan being the only market to date.

Currently many bricks-and-mortar businesses are leveraging a feature called Lures, which can be purchased in the app, to drive traffic. Lures increase the rate of Pokémon generation in the area around the PokéStops where they're placed, for half an hour. PokéStops are designated places in the game that allow players to collect items such as eggs and more Poke Balls to capture more Pokemon.

Speaking to Campaign Asia-Pacific, Erik Hallander, regional mobile and innovation director with Isobar Asia Pacific, noted that it’s really “quite unknown” how far Niantic and Nintendo will allow brands to monetise or influence the game experience.

“Intuition tells me gyms and sponsored stops is probably as far as they will go,” he says. “Offering ways to customise stops, avatars and gyms might be a way forward as well.”

But being an official partner need not be the only way to jump onboard the Pokémon craze, said Dillah Zakbah, creative technologist at Host Singapore. She pointed out that businesses that can’t afford it can find ways to ‘trendjack’ and create content around it for their social streams.

“If you can’t be in the game you should hack your way around it. Let’s say you know the location of a PokéStop," she said. "If it is a public place, consider doing an activation there that might lead back to your business.”

“No activation budget? How about flyers, sandwich boards or posters? Similar to the café at the ad agency Huge in Atlanta that gave away special discounts and promos for those who caught a Pokémon around the area,” she said.

Zakbah pointed to how Virgin Mobile Australia got in on the action by involving Pokémon Go players in reality—by allowing them to charge their phones in-store.

“As we know, Pokémon Go is a very battery-hungry app, and many users have taken to carrying around portable charge packs to get a bit of extra Pokéjuice,” she said. “Getting players into the store to spend quite a bit of time there is a way to be introduced to your products and services and to get eyeballs and attention.”

While it may appear with the McDonald’s deal in Japan that global brands have the upper hand in getting official deals signed with Niantic, all is not lost for smaller brands. Dadwal noted that “bigger budgets and flashy ads” are not all it takes to succeed in mobile advertising.

“The beauty of mobile marketing lies precisely in the flexibility that it provides, even for smaller brands and businesses,” he said. “Even by just employing location-enabled features like PokéStops and Lures, smaller brands can get a foothold by fully understanding the behaviour of a Pokémon Go player—who congregates at a location because of the gameplay and not for the direct service provided.”

Dadwal said smaller brands will need to devise strategies to accommodate and support these players with services that will attract them to either stay or return later.

“Offering loyalty cards for players who captured their Pokémon, or free device chargers, for instance, are examples of how smaller brands can leverage the potential of AR in retail spaces,” he added. “Not turning an in-game transaction into a reality would be a lost opportunity.”

Dadwal’s own Pokemon Go-related campaign favourite comes from the Tennessee Highway Safety Office (THSO), an American state government office that has issued warnings around playing Pokémon Go while behind the wheel, in the form of social-media posts.

“Drivers have not only been warned to refrain from using mobile gaming apps while driving, but to also stay alert of their surroundings at all times,” he adds.

Brands beware

But brands in Asia should not jump onto the bandwagon for the sake of appearing current.

“With numerous brands injecting their brands and services, you may become just an additional ‘background noise’,” said Zakbah. “I would recommend having a focus that leads to real-life conversion or interaction.”

Dadwal said sponsored locations are currently the most talked-about marketing opportunity, but cautioned that before investing in this, marketers in Asia need to be mindful of ensuring that they are reaching the right target demographic through the platform.

“There would be little relevance, for instance, for a premium jewellery brand to be getting on board given that the demographic cashing in on Pokémon Go are millennials,” he said.

Zakbah also advised brands to be mindful of potential cultural minefields, as the name of the Pokémon characters tend to be exotic and can sound similar to something that might be unsavoury for the business.

“For example, make sure a Mamoswine is not in a Halal kebab store,” she said. “It might also be egocentric to also assume that everybody is okay with the act of capturing ‘monster slaves’, trading them and throwing them into a ‘cock fight’.”

There is also another consideration to take into account around concerns about privacy and the amount of data players have had to hand over to access the game.

“This means the Pokémon Go team has a wealth of information and learnings,” said Zakbah “Before engaging in Pokémon Go, ask yourself as brands if the creators can share useful data or analytics with you that your business could leverage or learn from.”

Join the Pokémon army or build your own?

The Pokémon Go craze has put the spotlight on how AR and mobile technology can play a more meaningful role in a brand’s marketing plans. But is it better for brands to join the pre-existing army or venture out into AR on their own?

Hallander believes that we will “undoubtedly see a lot of similar type products come out now to try and capitalise on the hype”, but noted that brands seeking the same levels of devotion should manage expectations.

“The problem is that Pokémon have such a long and loved history,” he said. “It’s not the AR/geo stuff that’s driving crowds, it’s Scyther and Dragonite. Geocache apps have been around forever. The game that Pokémon is based on, Ingress, has been around forever. It’s Pokémon, not the ‘style’ of game.”

Host’s Zakbah pointed out that joining the Pokémon army would mean that you would need to compete with other brands who have the best digital critter to offer, and with more brands on board, you would be just more background noise.

“You need to really stand out while trying to fit in,” she said. “Creating your own might allow you to adjust features to work in your favour, or to solve issues that are specifically targeted to your target audience, for a more bespoke and meaningful way to communicate and market.”

Small businesses could also learn from the strategy and the timing of Pokémon Go that have made it a success and use that learning in their own efforts.

“A furniture store for instance, will be able to drive a specific business benefit by allowing its items to be positioned on a virtual version of the user’s home floor, with customised digitised images that can be positioned in different angles,” said Dadwal.

Zakbah advised taking the elements of choosing a character, game or something that resonates with the millennial audience, then re-launching it with all of the favourite tech features combined (mobile, social, augmented reality and virtual reality)—at a time where nostalgia resonates and when there is a way for older millennials to share a piece of their updated childhood with their own children.

Dadwal said what has been “most exciting” for him is how Pokémon Go has made mobile marketing all the more accessible for smaller retailers and businesses.

“When people talk about location technology, the tendency is to presume that its applications would require prohibitive investments, so only the biggest brands can engage in it,” he said. “But what we are seeing in the US, where droves of gamers drop by the local pizzeria, for example, to buy food and drinks while playing, is the clearest demonstration of the power of mobile marketing for all brands if employed effectively for the right target audience.”

In his view, the technology is allowing businesses of all kinds to make marginal investments for significantly higher returns. In fact, before the current craze took off, an article in MIT Technology Review explored the ways retailers are using AR apps built on Google’s augmented-reality platform, Tango.

Dadwal also noted that benefits reaped from advertising on the platform would also differ by industry; brands in the retail, consumer products  and entertainment industries—where the adoption rate of products and services are higher—are likely to experience higher conversion rates than brands in the telecom or financial-services sectors.

“In essence, marketers need to make sure they are hitting the right customer before investing in the new craze,” he said.

The number one rule in app development is to not build something just because everyone else is doing so. One should only build an app if there is a purpose to it.

“If the location marketing strategy and AR strategy fits the purpose, only then is there a reason to build a Pokémon Go inspired app,” said Zakbah.

Dadwal echoed the same sentiment, noting that the most important consideration before building an AR application is to identify the use case and user flow for the application.

“Because AR involves combining the real and virtual world, and permits real time interaction, creating a compelling user experience is extremely complex,” he said. “At the most basic level, it is vital that the AR app provides a solution to a specific problem, so users are able to attain immediate gratification and are more willing to continue using the app.”

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